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Art and culture

The special importance for urban development of cultural pioneers

Summer tango at Buenos-Aires-Kai or rather the dance floor on board the MS Stubnitz? Top international starts in the Elbphilharmonie or rather intimate, classy jazz concerts in Halle 424? African sculpture or virtual reality art? You can find all of this packed into a small space in today’s HafenCity. Events on offer range across all the cultural areas, from curated art projects in the “Imagine the City” HafenCity cultural program, taking in Summer in HafenCity with dance, poetry slams and readings, all the way to major international festivals such as the annual Harbour Front literary festival, the Elbjazz Festival or the festival “Theater der Welt” in 2017. Culturally important major architectural icons such as the Elbphilharmonie and the Internationale Maritime Museum Hamburg are complemented by a wide variety of culture-related or creative industry uses, such as galleries and media houses, design studios and, last but not least, Hamburg’s largest creative quarter, Oberhafen.

The appropriation of the area by culture is particularly important for HafenCity. Because it was part of the free port, the current HafenCity area was long a big blank sport on their map for most of the Hamburg population. The free port and the Hamburg Port Development Act ruled out any uses unrelated to port activities. For a long time, there was no place for social and cultural coexistence between the port authority and the industrial plants, old warehouses and sheds. That made basic questions all the more pressing when HafenCity development began: How do you develop a new urban space without established users? How can you create a social and cultural meeting place that will develop a presence over the course of many years and generate value added for the inner city? And how can a district be created that remains lively over time? Central answers to the questions are provided by the urban development concept of mixed uses, the housing concept that appeals to a wide range of social groups, and the intensive support for social processes in the quarters. But an important contribution is also made by the first pioneers from art and culture who awoke a broad public interest in the development of HafenCity by their cultural appropriation of the area. This represented an important precondition for socially relevant, urban development. Direct support for art and culture, on the other hand, ensures that urban development not only creates the physical conditions for a lively district in the future, but also gives the area, which will still be marked by construction work for a good while, a high amenity value at an early stage.

Cultural stakeholders

With the beginning of the development of HafenCity in 2001, the first cultural pioneers set foot on what was still unknown terrain, improvising with their instruments on building sites and wasteland (“Musikalische LandArt – Tune”), creating installations, geoglyphs and temporary artists’ colonies (“Artgenda”) or going during the Hamburg Architecture Summer on “Hafensafari”, touring temporary art installations with supporting exhibitions. With the lifting in 2003 of free port status, the way was open for a larger number of cultural projects by urban stakeholders. In 2005, HafenCity Hamburg GmbH and Hamburg’s Ministry of Culture together smoothed the path towards financial support and institutional establishment of cultural activities in HafenCity. On the one hand, the cooperation “Art and Culture in HafenCity” was founded by HafenCity Hamburg GmbH, Hamburgische Kulturstiftung and the Körber Foundation as a funding body to initiate and provide financial support to artistic projects in public areas. On the other hand, the then Minister for Culture, Karin von Welck, initiated the Culture Coordination Group as a special committee of HafenCity Hamburg GmbH to scrutinize the quality of externally submitted art and culture concepts and to provide strategic support for the development of HafenCity.

The result was that it was not only top-flight artistic projects like “Jahrmarkt des Abschieds” (2005/2006) and the international off-art festival “Subvision” (2009) that came about. The Art and Culture in HafenCity cooperation also commissioned three projects in 2011 curated by Kampnagel, the Deichtorhallen and the Kunstverein: the multimedia music performance “Global Design” by Christian von Borries on board the MS Bleichen, the sculpture “The Bronze House” by Plamen Dejanoff at Strandkai and the film production “Ein neues Produkt” by Harun Farocki, which addressed the role of the individual in new worlds of work and life.

Since August 2017, and supported by the non-profit association Art and Culture in HafenCity, HafenCity curator Ellen Blumenstein’s work with the motto Imagine the City has been enriching cultural activities in HafenCity. In a five-year cultural program, the projects initiated at the interface between art and urban development have been exploring the relationship between the individual, the built urban environment and new techniques. It kicked off with the 2018–2020 neon tube installation “Public Face” by the artists Julius von Bismarck, Richard Wilhelmer and Benjamin Maus on Kibbelstegbrücke bridge – a smiley over 5 m in diameter that assembled anonymized facial mimicry markers of passersby captured on camera to form a “collective mood” of the neighborhood. The enchanted garden installation “Bee Chapel” (2019) by Terence Koh, a former enfant terrible of the New York art scene, the airbrush work “Backdrops” by the young Hamburg artist Gerrit Frohne-Brinkmann, showing till April 2021 in the underground parking garage of northern Überseequartier, and the web app “Botboot” by Sebastian Quack, till February 2021 playfully guiding smartphone users through HafenCity with chats and geocaching, are also part of the program. Anchoring contemporary art curated innovatively in the urban space shows that a complex cultural cluster has long since formed from the part serendipitous, part initiated artistic “feeling one’s way” of HafenCity’s early years. Cooperative projects and new uses have been set in train, modern buildings and public spaces transformed into stages for art and culture, old buildings married to interactive digital formats. They all offer a place and a space for the new and the tried and tested, for the entertaining and the thought-provoking.

Buildings for culture

But it was not only strategic impulses and seed funding that propelled the cultural development of HafenCity forward. Above all, the targeted local integration of cultural and culture-related stakeholders, who found a home in HafenCity in the course of site development through ideas concepts and site tenders and who are still involved today: the Hamburg design platform designxport with exhibitions and discussion formats, the culture ship MS Stubnitz at Kirchenpauerkai – a listed former East German refrigerator ship that today is the home to techno, world music, jazz or performance, plus galleries showing all sorts of artistic styles, Halle 424 in Oberhafen – a renovated goods hall with its own resident orchestra and a curated jazz program, the Hafenbühne stage, the Astor Film Lounge premium movie theatre and the 20457 club in Überseequartier, start-ups in Honkongstrasse and hybrid concepts marrying restaurants or hotels with concert stages, including Carls in the Elbphilharmonie and in the 25hours HafenCity hotel. While these permanent anchor tenants strengthen HafenCity as a cultural location in the long term, temporary events provide the “icing” on the cultural cake through the year: above all Thalia Theater’s annual summer programs in a special tent on Strandkai and Baakenhöft for many years, the annual Elbjazz festival, the Harbour Front literature festival at various locations in the district, and the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, which continues to delight large audiences with open-air concerts and video broadcasts, even in front of the Elbphilharmonie itself.

Apropos the Elbphilharmonie. Even though getting there was a long and rocky road, the spectacular concert venue by Herzog & de Meuron, which sits atop the gutted Kaispeicher A warehouse built to plans by architect Werner Kallmorgen in the 1960s, has catapulted both Hamburg and HafenCity into the premier music league, with HafenCity getting a cultural and architectural icon of high global ranking. Together with the future Elbtower by David Chipperfield Architects next to the Elbe bridges and the glazed Spiegel building complex by Henning Larsen Architects on the Ericus promontory, it is part of the exterior maritime triangle of outstanding buildings and locations at the “corners” of HafenCity that was already proposed in the HafenCity Masterplan. From afar the glass façade of the Elbphilharmonie, with its striking wave-crested crown, beckons visitors. In its interior, a unique hybrid of clinker brick functional building and contemporary architecture has been created, offering two auditoria holding audiences of 2,150 and 550 respectively, a 244-room hotel, a parking garage with space for about 500 vehicles, 44 apartments, musical education facilities, restaurants and bars. The public plaza at a height of 37 m offers panoramic views of the port, the River Elbe, HafenCity and the city center, while in the auditoria top international musicians provide for impressive and memorable concerts. Full houses and more visitors than either Neuschwanstein castle or the Reichstag building in Berlin can attract speak for themselves: the Elbphilharmonie is the new star in town.

Museums and creative spaces

But it is also the less well-known cultural locations that characterize Hafencity: places such as the International Maritime Museum Hamburg. The private collection of Peter Tamm, the publishing manager who died in 2016, found a permanent home here in the Kaispeicher B warehouse by Magdeburger Hafen basin, whose ten floors offer 11,500 m² of exhibition space. It is a meticulously assembled collection of tens of thousands of model ships, of uniforms, of maritime art and of other maritime artefacts. From the summer of 2005, architect Mirjana Markovic extensively renovated the warehouse, converting it into a museum but leaving intact its characteristic architecture by Wilhelm Emil Meerwein and Bernhard Hanssen dating from 1879. Also opening in 2008 was the Prototyp automobile museum, which moved into the listed former premises of the Harburger Gummi-Kamm-Compagnie on Shanghaiallee. The private collection of the museum founders, Oliver Schmidt and Thomas König, includes rare automobile icons and legendary racing cars as well as spectacular temporary exhibitions such as BMW Art Cars in 2017 including models by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, A. R. Penck and Jeff Koons. A few hundred meters further east, tucked away behind the mainline rail viaduct leading to the main station, a wholly new world emerges: Oberhafen quarter. Low former goods sheds with loading ramps cluster next to multi-story administrative buildings such as the old roadmaster’s office and a former customs building. They all witness to the area’s early use as a freight depot and cargo transfer point from the port to the railroad. Today Oberhafen is one the most fashionable hotspots in Hamburg for the creative sector and is even a model Germany-wide due to its low-threshold space offers and its interdisciplinary and participative orientation.

Since 2011 the neighborhood has been going through a long process of transformation into a new cultural and creative quarter. After the first pioneer users from when it was still in use as a rail and logistics location, concepts and stakeholders from a wide range of sectors followed in recent years: Hybrid workshop concepts, a firm of architects’ firm, a gallery and a film production company can be found in the large-scale warehouse spaces, while the office buildings house smaller jewelry studios, the   FilmFabrique co-working space and a young publishing company, for example. There is also the Halle 424 classical and jazz music location, the children’s dance and music association Lukulule e. V., Parkour Creation e. V. and Hanseatische Materialverwaltung, with its upcycling concept for second-hand theatre props and equipment. Gängeviertel e. V., including the Moloch club, was a temporary user of Oberhafen quarter from 2015 to 2020. What was originally intended as an interim solution while the association’s own premises were renovated turned into a fruitful coexistence spanning many years. Festivals and exhibitions – such as the Photography Triennale and VRHAM!, the first ever international festival for virtual reality art, founded in Oberhafen –  are regular guests, generating artistic impetus. Further attractive cultural locations and offers will follow in coming years, for example the children’s architecture “Hochform” at Strandkai, new digital concepts and the documentation center denk.mal Hanover Railroad Station, currently under construction, that will provide the first comprehensive documentation of the deportation from Hanover Station of more than 8,000 Jews, Sinti and Roma between 1940 and 1945. The planned Digital Art Museum (teamLab) is yet another cultural highlight of international cultural importance, due to be built at Amerigo Vespucci square.



An innovative mix of cultural, creative and sport facilities is developing just a stone’s throw from Lohsepark, the Deichtorhallen and the Central Wholesale Market

Art and culture

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